Last week, the Common Council gave its approval to a plan that had been years in the making – a zoning revision that would redirect the future of Ithaca’s Waterfront and much of the West End. Arguably, while the vote gets the most attention, it’s perhaps the easiest step in the process. What happens from here is, to be truly honest, anyone’s guess.

On the one hand, when looking at the waterfront, visible when looking down from all the city’s major hills, it’s easy to recognize the potential to address many of the city’s problems (no one here is naive enough to say they’ll be fixed). With Downtown and State Street are hemmed in by historic areas, and most established neighborhoods fighting to keep developers at bay, the waterfront area presents the most opportunities, with more affordable and often underutilized property within just a few minutes’ drive or a decent walk/bike ride from Ithaca’s core. There is potential for new housing, new businesses, and to create an environment that will improve upon the city and county’s quality of life.

On the other hand, let’s also acknowledge the difficulties faced with the walkable, mixed-use environment the city wants: there are poor soils, traffic ingress/egress issues, barriers such as the train tracks, power lines and petroleum tanks, care is needed to avoid large-scale displacement of lower-income households, and last but not least, the city’s stringent and sometimes onerous review process. From a practical standpoint, the biggest plus of the revised zoning is the greater flexibility provided in the code for uses (particularly housing) and building configuration; by minimizing the number of zoning variances needed, a project faces less uncertainty, making it a safer bet for approvals and, by extension, construction financing.

This new zoning is not a silver bullet to solve the city’s housing or planning problems. With the exception of Collegetown’s lucrative, captive market, zoning doesn’t affect change overnight. At best, this is like adding some nutrients to the soil where you want your flowers to grow. They may not sprout exactly where you think they will, some are bigger and prettier than others, and only time and care will allow them to flourish.

Since Ithaca began as a frontier town over two centuries ago, the waterfront has been seen as a utility at best, and a dump at worst. The well-to-do of the 19th century lived far from its shores out of fear of waterborne disease; and while it served as a convenient route for passengers and freight in the heyday of the Erie Canal, the march of train tracks across the land relegated it to secondary importance. In place of those old boat sheds grew the housing of the the very poor, who needed a roof over their heads like everyone else, but had to make do with ramshackle sheds. This area, on the fringe of Ithaca society, was known as “The Rhine”.

Fast forward to fifty years ago, and the logic of the time was that the crime and poverty of The Rhine could simply be bulldozed or burned away; under the auspices of the state’s flood control project, much of the neighborhood was literally burned to the ground for firemens’ training. Residents were forced to relocate to new, isolated apartment complexes like West Village; out of sight, out of mind, the local leaders figured. But the issue wasn’t the homes of The Rhine, it was a society that hoped that if they just ignored the social anxieties of the poor and vulnerable, they’d eventually fix themselves. Given the years of crime and substance abuse that followed, in those apartments on the fringe of the city and the fringe of society, it was a hard lesson for the community. In many ways, it’s a lesson still being learned.

In place of the Rhine came warehouses, parking lots; there’s some industry, though not much. With Ithaca’s land values, taxes, traffic and other issues, it often makes more sense to scout out a location in Ithaca town, Lansing or Dryden. The one thing the new zoning had really taken away was heavy industry; but it’s been gone for so long, few noticed the change in code. Only recently, with the city’s resurgent economy and hot housing market, has interest been rekindled in Ithaca’s waterfront – examples include 323 Taughannock, the Lehigh Valley House condos, Purity Ice Cream’s expansion, the Cherry Artspace, Island Health and Fitness, and Carpenter Business Park.

To touch on that last one briefly, there’s no one to “blame” for the Maguire conflict. Neither side acted in bad faith. The city’s new Comprehensive Plan was finalized at virtually the same time as Maguire purchasing the Carpenter property. The Maguires’ business is auto sales and repair, not tracking working sessions on Ithaca’s long-term urban planning goals. Meanwhile, the city is obligated to hear from the many local interest groups and general public before rolling out big changes. In the end, it was all just really unfortunate timing, and the city enacted the TMPUD as a band-aid until they could formalize the new zoning. Thankfully, things worked out for the Maguires, and we can look forward to seeing Cayuga Medical’s plans when they’re ready.

Physically and socially, the hills have always looked down on the waterfront. With the city’s nod of encouragement, it’s hoped that the parking lots and vacant properties will be seen as opportunities. While mindful of the need to encourage housing for those most vulnerable to the city’s affordability issues (although just outside the new zoning, projects like Lakeview’s are gladly welcomed), we’re cautiously hopeful that development on the waterfront will decrease the housing deficit and take some of the development pressure off of what working class housing remains in the city. While it’s exciting to see imagery like Form Ithaca’s, the optimism is tempered by the realities faced by Ithaca’s long-denigrated shorelines. There’s a lot that needs to be done by public and private parties to get from here to there. Still, the Voice looks forward to a day when Ithaca’s shores are seen as worthy an asset as Fall Creek’s shady streets or West Hill’s scenic drives.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.